Interview with John Thawley
Several years ago, we got connected to John Thawley through a case of mistaken identity. Our mistake ended up being quite a happy coincidence. As a result, we've been exposed to some seriously incredible work. John's ability to capture the feeling of a moment, or the emotion of a person is exceptional. We were fortunate to get some of his time to answer some questions with us.
We really enjoyed our inspiring exchange with John, and we think you will too.
95: How did you get into photography?
JT: I really can’t say there was a single reason or single moment that led me to where photography has taken me. I honestly believe it’s just an extension of curiosity. You know, "what happens if I push this button… or bang on this piano key… or pull that lever?" In a way, it’s a sense of discovery that was fueled by the result. I recall a similar sense of satisfaction when I first started doing computer graphics or back in the 90’s when I first wrote some HTML code. The fact that I could write a page of code, then click on a link and have other things happen provided a real magical feeling of accomplishment. With photography, as you progress, you are continually provided with that buzz of creating 'something.' As you progress, the results (hopefully) improve. Ultimately, and again, hopefully, you are able to see a scene or an image in your mind and manipulate the camera into producing that vision. Trust me… that’s a drug. Each level of your progress just opens another door and triggers your curiosity and opens up a Pandora’s box of endorphins. I think it helped that my first camera was a Polaroid. Having that instant gratification had to be a big catalyst driving me to push the button again. My first 35mm SLR was a Pentax. It was a gift. That was it… game over. I went to the Cayman Islands about a month after getting the camera… I think I shot like 30 rolls of film. I was hooked.
95: What brought you to motorsports photography?
JT: Again, it was something that evolved from other activities. I grew up around Detroit… you don’t come out of the Motor City without being a car guy. My first attempt at racing photography was as a spectator at Mid-Ohio. Like a lot of photography enthusiasts, I was enamored with all the equipment and with trying to accomplish all the different techniques. Panning a race car was something that intrigued me… and I liked racing and race cars. Though, to be honest -- and this is in the interest of full disclosure -- I don’t really see myself as a race fan. I’m certainly not as knowledgeable about all the technical aspects and the ins-n-outs like some fans. I’m a photographer. I like the subject… and I love the people. It’s a fascinating and challenging subject to shoot. I think that’s what always attracted me. There’s myriad of photographic opportunities… the cars, the action, the people… both on and off the track, inside and outside the lines… and the atmosphere. It’s an incredibly intense environment that comes at you like a kaleidoscope. You’re kind of like a dog hanging out the car window. Images are flying at you.
The tipping point for me came by winning a web development contract with Penske Motorsports. And herein lies a lesson I’d like to share; you know, as kids and young adults, we’re continually advised to follow our dreams. And we should… we should do everything we can to be true to ourselves and true to our heart. There was a video circulating recently where Jim Carrey talked about his father being a very funny man. But his father became an accountant. After many years as an accountant, he lost his job. Carrey’s point was: you can fail doing something you don’t like, so why not do something you like…. even if you fail… at least you’re doing something you like.
I’m where I am today through a series of different careers that all led me here. Not that “here” is some sort of towering accomplishment… but “here” is where I am happy. I’ve always made sure that whatever my profession was, it was something that was fun and something I enjoyed. So it never felt like work. My advice is, follow your dreams, but watch what is happening in your peripheral vision. I’ve gone from men’s retail, to clothing designer to graphic designer to web developer to photographer. All involved marketing. All involved selling. All involved a professional decorum, and most importantly, all involved a burning desire to be the best I could be. I drive myself crazy trying to do whatever I’m doing, better. My favorite quote is:
“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” - Robert Hughes
I’m not sure I’m comfortable referring to myself as an “artist,” but I am a creative. I like to create. Whether it is art or not lies with my audience, not me. I’m never satisfied with my work. My satisfaction comes from how I worked that day, not the work itself.
Anyway, after we won the contract with Penske -- and this is where the peripheral vision piece comes in -- I became entrenched in the motorsports community. The Penske project involved live updates from trackside, and we were responsible for generating content. The on-track activities weren’t our focus, however. We were managing the speedway websites… Michigan, California, Nazareth, Homestead and Rockingham. So we needed writing, which typically came from the track PR staff, and we needed photos. The track’s photographers were still shooting film back then. So, I picked up an early Olympus digital camera … 1.2 megapixel if I recall, and started running around grabbing photos of “the scene.” We could upload the images from the track and it was a perfect fit. When digital SLR’s hit the street, I sold all of my old film gear and loaded up with Canon cameras and lenses. One thing led to another… and here I am. Today, my company can provide turn-key services of web development, PR and photography. More often than not, that is our arrangement with clients. They race. We communicate. I make pictures. LOL
95: How do you get the person or car onto the film / chip in just the way you want?
JT: If I tell you, then I’ll have to kill you.
There’s a hierarchy in the process of learning photography. After a while, you see it in yourself and you certainly spot it in others… especially those starting out. Like anything, you focus on the wrong things (no pun intended). Most new photographers are convinced they don’t have the right equipment. They need this lens, that body, these filters, more Photoshop, bigger files, better this, better that. They rarely have the discipline it requires to really buckle down and learn the craft. In many ways, the digital era has made that worse. Today’s cameras provide far too many shortcuts for taking better pictures. If you’re serious, you’ll learn that there’s a difference between taking better pictures and making better photographs. With today’s cameras a monkey can get a clear and in-focus shot. There’s no magic in that.
If you remove the front of every camera out there and ignore the back, they’re all the same. I own Polaroids from 1959. If I pull out the film cassette so you can see inside, you can actually watch the shutter trip and the see light briefly come through the lens / aperture. Open / Close. That simple. The light hits the film / sensor… and the image is burned.
With digital, we’re carrying around 80% computer and 20% camera. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point. In 1980, you could put a 35mm SLR from every manufacture in front of any professional photographer and he or she could pick it up and start making photos. Immediately. Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, Yashica, Pentax… whatever. If it was an SLR with interchangeable lenses, they wouldn’t have to think twice. Not today. Now every manufacturer has their own control panel layouts, their own menus and software and their own secret sauce. That’s the 80%. Now, to be fair, that helps a lot of people take great pictures. But it can also make them lazy. They become complacent not realizing the camera is taking great pictures and they’ve abandoned their role in the process. Ultimately they never learn how to make great photographs.
The camera is just a tool. And the best camera I own is the one I have with me. What makes the great photograph is what I see, how I approach it, how I go about telling you what I saw and making the camera give me the image that is true to that vision. You have to be in control of the camera. You can’t allow it to make up your mind or allow it to replace your vision. They call the camera setting Automatic. If making photographs was automatic you wouldn’t need the photographer. Like anything, it’s the human element -- the human input that makes the difference. I don’t want to just give you a view of Laguna Seca. I want to give you MY view of Laguna Seca. What I saw… and hopefully, what I felt and experienced.
So how do you do it? You never stop looking… where’s the light coming from? what is it doing? what is it doing over there? If I stand here, is this the same thing everyone else saw? If I bend down… if climb up there… what happens? what changes?
Then there’s the competitive end…. where’s Rick Dole? Where’s Regis Lefebure. LOL
95: What is your approach? How has your style developed / evolved over time?
JT: I guess I covered some of that in the last question, but I see my job has making the technology invisible. I want you to look at the image and almost feel as if you’re there… like a fly on the wall. I think that’s why I like candid head shots so much. If I can catch two or three guys in a pit stall discussing a strategy or problem, I love to work my lens into the emotion of the scene… make you a voyeur… like looking through a keyhole. I’ll want something out of focus in the foreground and a background that is barely recognizable… and I’ll want one face… one face that is passionate and intense. That makes my audience feel they are part of it. I love that. And I really love it in black and white.
The evolution is through learning. It’s important to learn. You can learn just as much, if not more, from your bad shots. And even with the good shots, you see what you could have done better -- ALWAYS. There is no such thing as a perfect shot. It’s like great wines; they’re not necessarily better, they’re just different. But studying shots that are boring or flat can help you determine what you’re doing wrong. You have to be your own toughest critic. You can’t listen to your audience. They don’t know what’s good until you show them. They know what they like and what they don’t like, sure. But they don’t know great until you show them great. You’re supposed to be the teacher. The leader. The discoverer. That’s how life is. Some watch, some wonder… and some make it happen. Make it happen. Be relentless.
Another quote -- this one is from Sam Beckett:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
95: Which photographers influenced you? and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
JT: I think influence in this day and age has to be collective. I mean, it’s all been done. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to think I’m doing something “new.” So I think I’m influenced by many great photographers that did much more with much less. Photographers I like are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Elliot Erwitz… and pretty much anyone who shot for Magnum Photos. I think there’s a common theme you’ll find among them all, and that is their faithful commitment to their vision, their style and the truth. Sure, they all have the skill to copy. You know -- to shoot like it’s a top 40 record. But they don’t. In the end, you want a body of work that reports back the world as you saw it.
Career path? I don’t have a career path. I personally live with the belief that I have an obligation to teach and to share. I have my life and the people that matter to me. My work is a joy and something that hopefully will continue to provide me with personal satisfaction and the means to provide for them.
95: Exactly what it is you want to get across with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
JT: Honestly, I find myself shooting for me. You can take that as a selfish approach, or see it as an honest approach. I can’t shoot for you… not while being honest. I can’t shoot what you see… I have to shoot what I see. I think it’s important to recognize that and be honest about it. If a client said, “I want you to get us some of those images just like so and so… “, I’d have to tell them, "Why not hire so-and-so?" I think I’m fortunate to be in a position where clients are hiring me because they’ve seen my work and like my work.
So… a perfect day is going out there and finding your point-of-view. I like when I hear someone make the comment, “Wow, I never noticed that before.” Then you’re doing your job. People stand by the track, or walk around the event and they see things happening in front of them. If you walk around the same way and simply point your camera at whatever you see, you’re only recording what the average person is seeing. I call it “drive-by shooting.” You have to change that point of view. Show things that people miss by simply walking by. The details… the texture… you have to make it richer, deeper…. even more informative.
95: What technology/software/camera gear do you use for your types of work?
JT: I shoot trackside with Canon gear. Bodies tend to be the flavor of the month or current model, but lenses are the business end of things. Among others, I live with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 and my Canon 500mm f/4 bolted on and all times. They are the bread and butter for shooting fast action.
In the paddock and around the event, I prefer to shoot with my rangefinders. These are small manual cameras made by Leica. Leica is the company that invented the 35mm camera. You could compare Leica’s “M” body camera to the Porsche 911. since 1955 through today, the “M” body styling is iconic and remains true to its form. And, like any good design, it’s form follows function. Even though the cameras are now digital, the functionality and controls are very much analog. Apertures (or f/ stops) are adjusted at the lens barrel. The shutter speed is controlled by a dial located on top of the camera. You focus manually and you’re not looking through the lens. There are no mirrors.
The shooting style is very personal. By it's very nature, shooting with a Leica is slower and more deliberate. But because of its size and form, it is very intimate. The camera is far less intrusive than a large DSLR. I have Leica lenses made in 1970 and 2013. They’re all spectacular. When I’m shooting at home and around town, I only shoot with Leica. My Canon gear is typically reserved primarily for sports or things that require fast and/or long glass. It’s safe to say I’ve become fairly passionate about Leica.
I also have some vintage Polaroid cameras I shoot with, and I love the camera in the iPhone 6+. I don’t shoot with film anymore, though I like that people still do. I’m not sure of the religious arguments people make for film. Digital is pretty amazing and is blazing new trails on its own. I listen with interest when someone starts waxing on poetically about film. But you know, it’s not organic. It’s not like it grows from the earth. Photography is and always has been a technology. So I think you have to embrace new technologies as they develop.
As far as software goes, I’m an Apple user. I currently use Apple’s Aperture Software for all my editing, post processing, archiving and digital asset management. I’ve had the good fortune to work directly with Apple’s software developers in this area, so I’m fairly entrenched in their philosophy. I’ll be moving toward their new platform, PHOTOS, in the next few months. I’m excited about the change as it will be completely integrated with Apple’s mobile technology incorporating cloud storage and distribution, and it will be accessible via Apple’s mobile and handheld devices. I think this is an important “next step” in digital workflow. It’s absolutely critical that photographers begin to understand management, storage and distribution of their work via cloud technologies.
95: How do you make a living while doing what you want to do with your photography?
JT: That’s something that each photographer has to address individually. I don’t think there’s a fixed business model. I do think motorsports is a unique business opportunity though. Teams, drivers and manufacturers are all motivated to have their product visible. They all have a need to activate their involvement. They can’t just show up and race. Other sports differ in that respect. My work is all commercial and performed under contract. I don’t rely on editorial, or get involved in print sales. This typically generates a mutual understanding between me and the client…. I know what they’re looking for and they trust me. You can’t ask for more than that.
95: What motivates you to continue taking pictures ( be it economically, politically, intellectually or emotionally)?
JT: For me, fear of failure has always been a great motivation. But it’s not fear of failure as defined by others. it’s answering to my own expectations. As I discussed earlier, creative people are never really satisfied. They’re never done. There’s something in you that drives you -- makes you ask, “what if?” But at some point, you do reach a level -- a personal standard, if you will -- that frees you up to experiment with confidence. You know your output isn’t going to be “bad.” , just maybe not what you wanted. You still know that fundamentally you’re operating on a quality level. With that liberation comes a boldness. You lose your fear of heights and you let go. You know you can fly a bit higher and still survive the fall. So you push yourself. You get to be a little crazy.
But I can assure you it’s not about economics, politics or intellect… it’s pure emotion. I mean, sure, you have to do things intelligently. That’s part of the process. But the end is all about the finished product… the high of loving what you do. Just know when I say that… when I talk about the “high”… I’m talking about one, two or maybe three photos culled from a weekend of shooting 5000. And I think you’ll find among all the top shooters, the numbers will break down about the same. Of that 5000, I assure you, 750 to 1000 will be great looking images. Maybe 20 or 30 will knock your socks off. But for that photographer, two or three will really hit home. Two or three might make it to the year end ‘best of’ portfolio.
Aside from a working weekend, though, my true passion is to walk around with my Leica rangefinders. I’ll go down to the pier or hang around City Dock in Naples and just watch. Catching the sunset, or walking around the lake behind my house offers up lots of shooting opportunities. It’s the best. I’m really fortunate that this is what I get to do.
ABOUT JOHN THAWLEY
John maintains a motorsports archive of trackside photography from United SportsCar Racing, American LeMans, Grand Am, Trans Am, Indy Car and SCCA World Challenge Series. Thawley is the official photographer for the Trans Am Series.
Projects include publishing the officially licensed SCCA Pro World Challenge 2005 Year In Review and the American Le Mans Series 2005 Collection, 'Champions.' 'Champions,' in addition to the linen bound edition, included a leather bound collector's volume and a signed and numbered boxed set of prints.
Thawley also published the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge 2004 Yearbooks and team photo books for Cadillac Racing, Corvette Racing, Turner Motorsports and Champion Audi.
In 2003 Thawley published the Limited Edition Trans-Am Series book 'Time Certain.'
Thawley's images have been featured in print for companies such as Acura, Cadillac, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lexus, Maserati, Mazda, Raybesto, StopTech in the pages of Autoweek, USA Today, SportsCar, Vette and others.
In addition to being a full-time motorsports photographer, John Thawley owns Creative Communications Group. Creative Communications Group is a company specializing in graphic design for print and electronic online applications. Unlike traditional graphic designers,Thawley has pursued the integration of online communications with traditional media as a seamless language.